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RIGHTS-CUBA: TV Opens Debate on Taboo Subject – Homosexuality

Dalia Acosta

HAVANA, Apr 7 1998 (IPS) - The host of a popular local Cuban TV programme, psychologist Manuel Calvino, dared to break the silence and intolerance surrounding the question of homosexuality in this Caribbean island nation.

In a fifteen-minute portion of his programme ‘Vale la Pena’ that he dedicated to the issue, Calvino carefully picked apart the prevailing homophobic arguments, and called on Cubans to respect homosexuals.

“We must respect people’s private lives,” Calvino, a professor at the University of Havana’s Faculty of Psychology, urged the millions of viewers who tune into state-run channel six in the evening.

Calvino said homosexuality was a sexual orientation like any other – something many people in a ‘machista’ society like Cuba find difficult to accept.

“The world is going one way and Cuba the other. Here not only the rejection we experience is silenced, but new scientific discoveries on homosexuality are not even discussed,” Maite Perez, a pyschologist who openly admits to being a lesbian, told IPS.

“He must be into something,” if he defends homosexuals like that, “you can be darn sure he plays on both sides of the tracks” (is a bisexual), was the reaction of Jorge Liriano, a department store clerk, to Calvino’s programme.

This is the second time this year that the programme Calvino has hosted for the past 10 years has taken up the question of homosexuality, ignored by the local press for decades.

Homosexuality is a taboo subject, like prostitution until early this decade or drug consumption even today. But Calvino’s pathbreaking programmes could mark the start of a public debate on homosexuality and homophobia.

Short stories, several theatre productions, the film “Strawberry and Chocolate” and the novel “Masks” by Leonardo Padura have tackled the parallel questions of homosexuality and homophobia in Cuba over the past few years.

But addressing the issue in the arts is far different from a recognition by the state-controlled media, which toes the Communist Party policy line, of the widespread intolerance in Cuba.

Calvino’s bold move followed last year’s approval of reforms of the Penal Code that did away with the last traces of homophobia. The category “public scandal” was replaced by “sexual insult,” which includes harassment with “sexual demands,” previously defined as “hassling with homosexual demands.”

Article 359 of the 1979 Penal Code, which provided for fines and detention for those who “publicly flaunted their homosexual condition or hassled or solicited another with their demands,” had been overturned in 1988.

That article also described “homosexual acts in public, or in private but exposed to being involuntarily seen by other people” as “crimes against the normal development of sexual relations.”

But last August’s police raid and closure of a gay bar- discotheque holding more than 800 visitors at the time was widely interpreted as a possible resurgence of government intolerance towards homosexuality, and a return to the hostile climate of the past.

Although they were short-lived, few have forgotten the Military Units of Support for Production (UMAPs) in which many people, including a number of homosexuals, were held and submitted to forced labour in the 1960s.

Priests, like the present Archbishop of Havana, Cardinal Jaime Ortega, figured among the victims of the UMAPs, as did Pablo Milanes, one of Cuba’s most internationally reknowned singer- songwriters.

Homosexuality was seen as incompatible with the education of children, and meant immediate dismissal from teaching jobs or positions in the area of culture. For many long years, homosexual preference was grounds for not being allowed to hold posts of responsibility and for being refused admission to the Communist Party and even certain university departments.

Conservative calculations estimate that four to six percent of Cuba’s 11 million inhabitants are homosexuals.

According to the National Centre of Sexual Education, under the Ministry of Public Health, homosexuality is “just another sexual behaviour, and a healthy expression of love.” But attempts by the centre’s specialists to promote tolerance and comprehension have come up hard against tradition.

“Homosexuality has not been excluded from the mantle of silence, a mix of prejudice and ignorance that has covered all aspects of sexuality,” a prominent local obstetrician, Celestino Alvarez Lajonchere, wrote in a report on homosexuality.

Nevertheless, Cuba’s homosexual community is alive and kicking, with known meeting places, “cruising” routes and underground clubs.

In a survey carried out in 1993 by the weekly ‘Juventud Rebelde’, the publication of the Union of Young Communists, most of the gays and lesbians interviewed said they felt that the worst had already passed, but that they feared a return to the past.

The survey, based on interviews with 75 homosexuals, forms part of a broader study still in progress, which includes a poll of more than 300 Havana residents.

A majority – 72.9 percent – of the gays and lesbians interviewed said homosexuality was the key characteristic defining their lives, and 63.5 percent said homosexuality was an option as valid as heterosexuality.

But 40 percent said they feared rejection, 32.9 percent said they had problems with their families, 20 percent were “in the closet” with respect to their families, and 27 percent said they tried to pass as heterosexuals.

In the second ‘Juventud Rebelde’ survey of the population at large, only six percent of those consulted said they considered homosexuality “normal.” The poll was carried out in Havana, the least conservative part of Cuba.

Seventy-eight percent said society marginalised gays and lesbians, while 10 percent said they would be capable of physical aggression against homosexuals. Although 55 percent claimed they would treat homosexuals in a “normal manner,” 52 percent referred to gays and 76 percent to lesbians in derogatory terms.

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